On the Wings of Treachery
An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Emil Palmer
Reading Time: 29 minutes
++For this sacred place, for this sacred cause, we stand together.++
++For faith and kinship, for divine design, we stand united.++
++For blood and honour, for tales eternal, we stand as kindred.++
“All as Kindred!”
++For truth and light, for Lorgar’s will, we stand as one.++
“All as One!” chorused the Word Bearers, their voices thundering through the hallowed halls of the Temple Sephigaros – the only structure that stood on the lonely world of Nammu. These were the signature words that closed the Host’s prayers, and the fire they kindled in Morgrael’s stomach had never cooled. Not once since they had first conceived it when revelation had come to them from olden Cadia and the legendary Ascended had it failed to renew his inspiration and remind him of the vision he and his brothers shared.
All of us, together as One. All of humanity, under the banner of the true divines.
Those brothers of his, so fierce and fiery in the crucible of war, held themselves at ease now that their morning prayer had concluded. They greeted Morgrael with genuine respect as he stepped down from the vox-altar and started through the temple halls, smiles and inclined heads signalling that he’d given them a sermon of surpassing zeal to carry with them through the day. As Coryphaus of the Everchanters Host, he would accept no less from himself. It was his duty, after all, to keep his warrior-brothers’ blood hot and their minds focused – to let them never forget what it was they strove for.
The battle for truth that had once torn the galaxy apart was the very thing that now kept the Everchanters together, bound in purpose and in unbreakable fraternity. Morgrael trusted each one of his brothers with his life, and knew that trust to be mutual. Though necessarily double-tongued as Word Bearers were, none among them would sully their sacred words with an outright falsehood. There had been enough of those for ten thousand years.
Making his way through the ornate halls of the Temple Sephigaros, bound for its deepest recesses, he took the time to appreciate the history displayed in every corner, on every window, around every doorway. The beautiful frescoes, stained-glass, sculptures and paintings present throughout the temple laid testament to his kinsfolk’s toil and dedication to remembrance. Of particular beauty were the runic conduits that traced up the walls like veins, carrying the Everchanters’ prayers to the gods they revered. It was their creed that nothing deserved to be forgotten, the truth being far too precious a thing to let time devour. Age-old tales found new life in Morgrael’s mind as he entered the temple’s innermost sanctum, where the long-awaited Rite of the Starwheel would soon be set to take place. There, their faces set in deep shadow, were the people he sought.
Etana Sar, Dark Apostle of the Everchanters, lifted his gaze from the device on the tabernacle adjacent to which he stood. Opposite him, Arch-Heretek Sephigar continued her foray into the apparatus’ innards, each one of her mechadendrites moving with surgical dexterity as they performed a task of unspeakable delicacy.
“All as One, Morgrael,” the Dark Apostle said, his tone welcoming. “A fine sermon; but then, I expected nothing less from you.”
“The Host has been hard at work putting the finishing touches on this temple. I would be disgraced if I failed to lift their spirits.” Morgrael smiled, his two rows of teeth flashing in the sanctum’s wyrd light. “How goes the engineering?”
“Splendidly,” Sephigar hissed, though the question had not been directly addressed to her. “The finalizing of my Starwheel is within my grasp. Soon, oh, so soon, I’ll have it operational.”
“We will have it working,” amended Etana Sar, his eyes flicking up to catch the heretek’s. It was a subtle movement, but Morgrael caught it all the same, and an unfamiliar feeling began to stir within him. “Its power will be ours to share.”
Morgrael looked upon the device being operated on before him, that strange feeling coiling up from his stomach into his chest. Glowing with green light, it reminded the Coryphaus uncomfortably of fearsome xenotech the Host had dealt with once in the past, with results that had been very nearly disastrous. “It staggers the mind, Lady Sephigar. This Starwheel of yours – can it truly turn back the chrono?”
The tech-priestess looked up, a playful smile on her lips. “I’d not have gone through such trouble to build it if I weren’t sure it would function as intended. We will take the wheel at the helm of time, and rebuild the galaxy in our vision.”
Morgrael pursed his lips, his expression contemplative and concerned. “It seems too easy,” he murmured. “That a single machine the size of a dinner plate could grant such great power, at so little a cost…”
“You forget yourself, Coryphaus,” Etana Sar admonished gently, motioning for the warrior to approach.
“You know better than to cling to a narrow vision of what can and cannot be. Leave behind small-minded thoughts, and let us sing a blessing for this artefact in the name of the Four.”
The addressed Astartes blinked, shook his head as if to shed his doubts, and moved to the edge of the tabernacle. “Forgive me, Dark Apostle. I ought to be embracing this good fortune instead of hesitating on its threshold.”
The nod he received in return let him know that his transgression was excused; with that done, he tilted his head back and raised his voice in an invocation more intimate than his morning prayer had been. “In the name of the Warrior, the Seer, the Gardener, and the Reveller, I offer my voice to the Empyrean Choir…”
When the blessing concluded an hour later and Morgrael made to depart, he found himself intercepted by Sephigar, who despite being close to a metre shorter, had a presence that seemed to fill the hallway outside the sanctum.
“What troubles you, my Lord?”
It irked Morgrael that he could never tell whether her proper address was facetious or not. Refusing to allow his frustration to show, he answered her in the gentle, reassuring tone his warrior-brothers knew him for. “Nothing ought to be troubling me” was his indirect response. “I trust Etana Sar’s judgement, and he trusts you.”
Sephigar smiled warmly, her kindness as artificial as most of her body. “You’ve known each other a long time, haven’t you? Since you both raced across the stars under your primarch’s banner.”
“We have.” His tone did not waver, but his expression must have betrayed his true sentiments. “He and I fought side-by-side at the turn of the Great Crusade. There is no one I would rather have at my back.”
“Clever, eloquent Morgrael,” she interrupted, her words ending in razor sharpness. “Ever careful with his half-truths and roundabout answers. You do so amuse me, Coryphaus.”
The implication of these words was not lost on the Word Bearer. “You question my loyalty?” he inquired softly, his expression locked in careful neutrality. He did not outrage easily. To truly provoke him was a matter of threatening his brothers, and nothing less grave would see him lose his temper. Sephigar did not take the bait, stepping closer to him, daring to close the distance. Both of them knew he was deadlier by far than she; this was not a challenge on her part, but a show of fearlessness for which he could only commend her.
“What I question is you being the sort of man to put too much stock in blind faith,” she stated, raising her chin to better meet his eyes. “Once upon a time, you sailed for centuries in the Eye of Terror and witnessed the Legions of old coming undone by treachery. You know better than to sleep without an eye open.”
“Am I not such a man?” Her observations had piqued his interest. “Are we not the exemplars of blind faith – we, the Bearers of the Word?”
Sephigar laughed aloud at that, her modulated voice echoed by metallic ringing. It was an infectious, assonant laugh, leaving Morgrael hard-pressed not to share in her humour. “Your faith in the Four Divines is not blind. You have seen daemons fly to your aid, summoned by dedications of living flesh. To see and to believe is the inverse of blind faith. Yours is the zeal of those who know, with demonstrable proof, that their prayers do not go unheard.” Her laughter faded, soon replaced by a wry grin. “It is easy to believe in something when you know it to be real, no?”
“That is fair,” the Coryphaus acquiesced, with a grin of his own. “But I fear you’ve read too deeply into my disposition, Lady Sephigar. You are one of us, and I harbour no suspicion towards my kinsfolk.”
“The fault is all yours, my dear Morgrael; you make for a most engrossing read. Even now, steadfast though you be, I cannot help but wonder where your truest loyalty lies.”
His eyes froze over, a stark contrast to the warm smile he still wore. “I have duties to attend to.”
“As do I.” Obviously aware of her victory, Sephigar slipped past him, letting one of her mechadendrites trail teasingly against the back of his hand. “Such busy people we both are.”
The Word Bearer did not turn to watch her go. He waited, listening as her footsteps grew fainter and fainter; when at last they were inaudible, he started back towards the chantry, where his duties awaited. Though there was much to be done as the Starwheel’s date of completion approached, all that occupied his mind was a blasphemous thought. He battled to cleanse it from his spirit, but it persisted, clinging like a serpent to its prey. He trusted Etana Sar absolutely, owing the Dark Apostle his life many times over.
So why this unease?
The question was verbally posed to him later that day by a visitor to the chantry, though with far less delicate words. First Acolyte Sharrum had thrown open the doors like a gale, startling the Kathartes that prowled along the beams a dozen metres overhead. With his black cape swirling around him, he’d stormed past the hundreds of rows of shelves to stand imperiously before Morgrael’s desk. Legion serfs, who previously had been going about their archival duties, did their best to pass unnoticed as the tempestuous Astartes waited to be acknowledged. Four heavy seconds after Sharrum arrived in front of his desk, the Coryphaus acknowledged the newcomer.
“All as One, Brother,” Morgrael intoned without looking up. “Have you come to help me sort this lexicon?”
“You know damned well that’s not why I’m here,” growled Sharrum, his fist closed around the hilt of his daemon sword. He bore the artefact with extreme vanity, an attitude that Morgrael had always quietly disapproved of. “Am I to understand that you doubt the design of our Dark Apostle?”
Morgrael was silent for a long moment, his eyes narrowing slightly, before finally answering. “You misunderstand,” he said. “I am simply hesitant to believe that we could so easily gain control over time itself through some mystery device. It is intended to conduct warp energies, yet by Sephigar’s assertion, it requires no offering to function. First Acolyte, I have studied warpcraft since the Urizen made it our purview to do so, and there is no ritual, no weapon, no tool of Chaos that does not demand some form of sacrifice to work.”
Sharrum gave a derisive snort. “I see now why Lord Etana Sar worries about your lack of vision.” The words stung enough to make Morgrael’s eyes widen, and it was not lost on the First Acolyte, who sneered cruelly. “When an unequalled opportunity presents itself to us, you alone among the Everchanters would spurn it. We have been offered a tool unlike anything else in the entire galaxy! A chance to turn the wheel of time back and set right our greatest failure! How dare you presume to undermine this, that we have built towards with lifeblood and zeal?”
Morgrael’s mouth twitched in cold fury, withheld only by a tremendous force of will. “You must excuse me for hesitating to trust in Sephigar, who brings us nothing but assurances of fair weather and divine favour. This business runs counter to all I know, and she flaunts Etana Sar’s support like a noblewoman would a gaudy dress.”
“This is why you do not carry the crozius yourself.” Sharrum’s visage showed only contempt. “Blessed is the mind too sharp for doubt.”
The Coryphaus sighed inwardly, recognizing those words as the corrupted inversion of an Imperial proverb. They appeared nowhere in the Book of Lorgar, and thus their invocation in this holy chamber bordered on blasphemy. This, to Morgrael, was a lesser evil than the sheer myopic stupidity of the statement. Even so, Sharrum was as much his brother as any of the Everchanters, and it would be disastrous if they came to blows – especially in this place, where so much recorded lore could be damaged.
With that in mind, he let his rising anger go, sent it boiling away into the Immaterium to nurture a nascent daemon, and when he next spoke, it was with his signature calm. “So it may be,” he conceded, turning once again to the convenience of half-truths. “I am exactly where Etana Sar needs me; of that, I have no doubt. You need not be concerned with the state of my fealty. Rest assured, First Acolyte, that when the time comes I shall be at my lord’s side doing what must be done.”
Though his choler was hardly assuaged, Sharrum appeared to accept this answer as satisfactory. “I will hold you to that, Coryphaus,” he all but snarled, “and should I find you wanting, your next answer shall be to Zhor’Haskyr.” He tightened his fist around the hilt of his daemon blade, causing it to glow with sinister purpose, before turning with a flourish of his cape and striding from the chantry.
“Bloody piece of work, isn’t he?”
Morgrael let out a sign of relief, relaxing in his seat upon hearing his mortal equerry. “Thank the gods for a voice of reason. Sit with me a moment, Hassimir; I find myself starved of lucid company.”
Hassimir approached as requested, taking a seat adjacent to his master and at once putting a quill to parchment, transferring Morgrael’s lexical annotations to a fresh document before the Coryphaus could think to ask for such aid. The human’s appearance was deceptively youthful, as he had seen for more than a century go by in service to Morgrael and the Everchanters. Sorcerous influences and training exercises, not juvenat treatments, had kept his body nimble and his features callow through the decades.
“Before you ask, my master,” Hassimir said, “You are not wrong.”
“Am I so easy to read?” the Coryphaus asked, a rueful chuckle escaping his lips. Hassimir looked up at him flatly.
“I have served you for a hundred and twenty-four years, master. Your face doesn’t show it, but when you’re feeling uncertain you rub your thumb and index finger together. You’re doing it now with that quill.”
Morgrael raised his brows, realizing that, indeed, he was. “I would call you observant, but it is as you say: you have had a century and a near quarter to learn to read my mind, kinsman. Tell me, then, what I am thinking, and why my suspicions are not blasphemous.”
“Thinking to keep safe your kinsfolk can’t be blasphemy, master,” Hassimir said, his opinion punctuated by the scratching of the quill. The familiar sound at once soothed and focused Morgrael, reminding him of the holy duties he undertook in this space so beloved to him. The Coryphaus’s mantle was that of a warlord, but he had always preferred books to blades.
“You are thinking rationally about the affairs taking place around us,” the equerry continued, his gaze slipping back to the human-skin parchment on which he wrote. “Nothing more. With that said, your brothers can hardly be blamed for their tunnel vision, given what it is Sephigar portends to achieve with this ‘Starwheel’ of hers.”
“A true victory,” Morgrael murmured, his voice thick with wonder and nostalgia. “To go back and triumph in the 30th Millennium, when everything was at stake. To strike a lethal blow to the False Emperor in his darkest hour and turn that terrible loss into a win.”
The scratching of Hassimir’s quill ceased.
“Master,” he said quietly, his words chosen with great care, “To the mortals in this temple, the Great Crusade and the Unravelling that followed it were times beyond imagining. Though we revere its tales, we had no stake in its ending. You and many of your warrior-brothers were there. You saw it unfold. You knew the bitterest of defeats. And now, thanks to this woman from the New Mechanicum and her strange device, it seems you have a chance to go back and set right that greatest wrong.”
“By the gods, Hassimir, I want to believe it.” Morgrae pressed his lips tightly together, no longer seeing the chantry. Wars long passed echoed dimly in his ears. Behind his eyelids, the walls of the Imperial Palace turned to rubble, and the False Emperor to the ash he deserved. “No deed would bring more glory to the divines – to the Legion! – than to lay that undead tyrant low ourselves.” Reality lurched back to him, painting a desolate scowl on his face. “But if it were so easy, another would already have done it.”
“To put it plainly, you think Sephigar is taking you all for a ride,” Hassimir stated, his voice nearing a whisper. “But, if I may be so bold, Coryphaus, I believe you have made… an error.”
His brows furrowed in concern, Morgrael fixed his equerry with eyes of rightful intensity. “Speak unreservedly, Hassimir. The safety of my kin matters far more than my ego.”
The human whistled four melodious notes in quick succession, rolling the parchment into a scroll and slipping a seal around it before raising it above his head. In a blur, one of the overhead Kathartes swept down and caught it in its claws, bearing it aloft before making its way to the shelf corresponding to the whistled notes. With that taken care of, Hassimir faced his master, his expression grave. “I think Sephigar isn’t the only person you should be suspicious of.”
As Morgrael felt his heart sink, he realized with painful certainty that his equerry had seen something he had not. He might have pressed further then, had not another Legion serf come to inform him of a development in the building process. The Temple Sephigaros was, by the accounts of those overseeing its construction, complete. Somehow the news failed to bring Morgrael any joy, but when he went to ascertain the truth of this for himself, the half-smile he wore gave nothing away.
When the warp-touched crimson moon of Nammu rose over the temple, casting its exterior in sanguine light, Morgrael was still awake. His warrior-brothers and the Legion serfs now slumbered, recovering from months of rigorous labour. Their rest was well-earned, and Morgrael would not needlessly rouse them before he confirmed his suspicions, but the turmoil in his mind had stolen away all thoughts of respite. Standing in the darkness of his personal quarters, his transhuman eyes pierced the shadows and saw the sudden glow of runes graven upon the walls outside his quarters. He had overseen their carving himself weeks ago, and knew that their illumination meant that there was sorcery afoot nearby. The effect lent a certain atmosphere to the Everchanters’ dark prayers, but the sight of them now in this darkness did nothing to rouse Morgrael’s zeal.
The runes pulsed obscenely, giving off the impression that the walls were living things with magic running through the engravings that made up their veins. This, too, was a half-truth; there was always some measure of life in sorcery, but not endemic to the walls. The holy scripture that covered Morgrael’s armour also resonated with the ritual taking place, recognizing the verses being invoked, as some of the same ones, which comprised the Coryphaus’s tattoos. It was this resonance which made tracking the sorcery’s source a trivial matter.
Coryphausss, came a hissing from the dark, following him on his way through the tenebrous halls. We heard a call. We felt a touch. We are in your footsteps. These psychic voices belonged to the Soul Brethren, who owed their conceptual roots to the original Gal Vorbak. The might of their mere presence, unseen but certainly not un-felt, solidified Morgrael’s resolve. He sensed them moving around him, their dreadful power made all the more palpable by their remaining hidden. His armoured feet made little sound as they trod the stone floors, while the hum and whir of his powered battleplate was lost in the ambient noise of the temple.
He and the Soul Brethren moved like ghosts, travelling higher and higher, until he found the stairway to the rooftop guarded by a distinctive silhouette. A gust of wind came down the stairs from the roof, causing Sharrum’s cape to flare out and make him seem even more imposing.
“All as One, Brother,” Morgrael said evenly.
“Stay your tongue, traitor,” Sharrum snarled, his features twisted in rage. “The Rite of the Starwheel has begun, and I will not risk you impeding its progress. I promised that you’d answer to my blade if your loyalty left anything to be desired, and I am no oath breaker.” He drew the daemon sword Zhor’Haskyr in a dramatic arc before adopting a duelling stance. Following a resigned exhalation, Morgrael drew his combat knife and spread his arms wide.
“We shall see about that.”
Sharrum lunged, his teeth bared in savage fury, but where Zhor’Haskyr rent the air Morgrael no longer stood. He had moved between breaths, as fast as thought, severing the tendons of Sharrum’s sword arm with a flick of his short blade as he stepped past the First Acolyte.
“How-” the swordsman stammered, in the instant before Morgrael spun around and shattered half of the First Acolyte’s face with a closed backhand. Sharrum staggered backwards into the waiting claws of one of the Soul Brethren, and with unnerving delicacy, the possessed Astartes broke Sharrum’s neck before letting his body slide bonelessly to the stone.
“No sword is a worthy substitute for true skill,” muttered the Coryphaus, even as he picked up the discarded blade and began his ascent. He paused to look over his shoulder, seeing the daemonic eyes of the Soul Brethren staring back at him in anticipation. “From here, I go alone,” he said firmly. “If I am to be condemned for my suspicions, I will not drag my brothers down with me.”
And we will not leave our brother to face danger alone. The unison in which they spoke might have unnerved a man of more mundane sensibilities, but it only brought a wry smile to Morgrael’s lips. You will not stop us from standing with you.
“So be it,” he acquiesced, turning to face the crimson light above. “All as One.”
All as One, chorused the Soul Brethren, and Morgrael swore he felt amusement from the sword in his grip.
From the roof of the temple rose a henge formed of eight standing stones, each of which was carved to resemble a giant outward-facing arrow. Together they stood in supplication to the gods, intended to channel offerings with the most signature iconography of Chaos. With his heightened senses Morgrael was able to perceive Sephigar walking around the outer edge of the henge, throwing what smelled like freshly-ground bone dust onto the ground to form a ring, and at the point of intersection of the eight stones stood Etana Sar.
Or rather, what had once been Etana Sar.
His body swollen with fell power, the Dark Apostle had grown half a metre in height. More and more raw warp energy flooded from the standing stones into his body, and as Morgrael scanned the scene before him, he at last understood what this all was.
When he had first seen the henge’s design in the later months of construction, he had imagined it to be a ritual altar on which to offer sacrifices and funnel prayers outward. Half of this assessment – that the henge was intended for ritual purposes – had been correct, but he had the other half of it backwards. Instead of offering a sacrifice from within the henge, it was designed to draw power inward from sacrifices without. This was only the zenith of the altar. The inner sanctum had been a ruse, a distraction, where Sephigar had wordlessly implied that the Rite of the Starwheel would take place. The truth of the matter was that the entire Temple Sephigaros was one massive deathtrap, the runes in the walls serving as conduits for whatever Etana Sar was drawing upward.
A scream split the infernal night, that of a ghost torn from its living body without warning, and before the sound died away, another phantom wail rent the air. Morgrael gritted his teeth, the ghastly sound pulling at his sanity; had he not been expertly versed in warding off such threats to the sanctity of his mind, he may well have lost all reason in that very moment. As it stood, he forced himself forwards, running across the roof towards his Dark Apostle, haunted by a choir of terrifyingly familiar fiends.
“Brother!” Morgrael shouted, slamming to a halt between two of the standing stones.
“Morgrael!” Etana Sar called back, his voice reverberating unnaturally from the maelstrom of energy around him. A bolt of green lightning reached out from the soil, embracing him and further twisting his body. Fingers lengthened into claws as the Dark Apostle’s sclerae turned midnight blue. “Morgrael, you have arrived just in time. Look upon me! This is what we have come to, this glorious ascension. In but a moment I will rise beyond the fetters of my mortal body and become the prince I was always meant to be.”
His old friend was ascending to daemonhood? Morgrael should have been ecstatic, should have fallen to his knees in reverence or screamed litanies heavenward, that the gods might welcome his warrior-brother into their domain, but all he could do was stare in horror as the howling of the ghosts met the sound of lightning. He saw souls being hauled through the air, recognizing them by their shapes and colours. They were being funnelled into the object Etana Sar now held in one wicked talon, being churned away into its unknowable depths: the Starwheel of Sephigar, which glowed with the same wyrd light that coloured the runes all along the temple walls.
“It eats their souls, Morgrael,” Etana Sar shouted joyously. “All of our brothers, all of our serfs, all those miserable prisoners in the dungeons. The Starwheel will devour them all, and then you, you, you can do it!”
“Do it?” the Coryphaus echoed hollowly, his knuckles bone-white as he gripped Zhor’Haskyr in one hand.
“Turn back time!” the prince ascendant roared, his cheeks splitting in addendum to a rapidly-expanding maw of needle-like teeth. “Spin the wheel of ages in reverse, take up the Anathame and plunge it into the Emperor’s black heart! You’ll be made a prince at least, if not ascend to godhood yourself!”
“Me? Strike down the Emperor, alone?” Morgrael watched, his mind in a state of absolute turmoil, as the soul of one of his old coterie-brothers was dragged screaming into the henge and consumed by the Starwheel. “Brother, do you hear yourself? This is pure madness! You have lost your mind!” His head snapped to look at Sephigar, a promise of frigid vengeance written on his face. “This iron witch has infected you with her deceit, but I will exorcise it and her from this place.”
“I should have known you would lack the vision needed for the task.” Etana Sar laughed, his voice a thunderous boom that crashed over the rooftop like a tidal wave. “Still, I only thought it fit to give you a chance, seeing how much we’d been through together. That is the difference between us, Morgrael; you cannot look beyond yourself towards the bigger picture, and so you stand powerless while I rise into immortality. Into truth.”
Sephigar screeched a command in binary, and over the edges of the roof surged an army of mechanical nightmares. Fearsome murder-servitors and tech-assassins flexed bladed arms and scuttled towards Morgrael, intent on hacking him apart, but the shadows behind the Coryphaus burst open, and from their depths came the Soul Brethren. With outstretched wings and scything claws, they tore into the massed servitors like so much scrap-metal, preventing them from interfering.
Morgrael looked back towards Etana Sar, who growled in ecstasy as a pair of feathered wings ripped free from his armoured back. “A betrayal worthy of Erebus himself,” the Dark Apostle hissed, a forked tongue slithering out from between his new teeth. “The damnation of my entire Host in exchange for my own ascension. A beautiful thing, is it n-”
The energy storm died. All light faded from the roof, save that cast by the red moon, and for a moment, the only sound was the Starwheel hitting the stone. Etana Sar looked down in abject shock at the stump where his talon had been, before his gaze shifted – first to his lost hand, still clutching the device on the ground and twitching hideously, and then, in burgeoning rage, to the one who had dared interrupt his ascent.
Without a word, he lashed out with the impossibly sharp talons of his other hand, but found his blow intercepted by a weapon of unimpeachable constitution: the daemon sword Zhor’Haskyr. “My brothers’ souls for your princehood?” Morgrael said, his voice as cold and serene as driven snow. “I think not. Each one of them is worth your traitorous hearts innumerable times over.”
Etana Sar’s mouth opened in fury so white-hot that no sound seemed worthy of expressing it. What eventually emerged was an inarticulate screech, punctuated by him leaping at his erstwhile brother in a berserker fury and launching a frenzied barrage of claw strikes. It was so graceless a manoeuvre that the Coryphaus felt ashamed to ever have counted the Dark Apostle as a fellow Word Bearer. With contemptuous ease, Morgrael parried his adversary’s assault and retaliated fourfold, cutting Etana Sar to his core. Cursed blood spurted from the would-be prince as his roars turned to wheezes, his breathing ran ragged, and the favour of the gods darkened into disdain. He had always been able to face Morgrael evenly in the practice cages, so why now was he being so easily beaten down?
“How curious,” murmured Morgrael as he smashed in the Dark Apostle’s knee with the flat of his blade, forcing Etana Sar to kneel. The pseudo-daemon groaned and struck out at him, but the bladesman was already elsewhere, the pommel of his sword cracking the back of Etana Sar’s skull. “I cannot see your soul. I wonder now if ever it was there to begin with, or if it fled with the last of your integrity.” There was no cruelty in that voice, nor even hatred; only a wintry calm. Somehow that made it infinitely worse. The uncrowned prince gurgled and tried to push himself up, but a booted foot to the small of his back slammed him flat against the stone.
Morgrael gazed down at the beaten form of his former brother, his eyes empty. “It occurs to me that this is still an altar, and we might as well put it to good use. With so much sacrificed tonight, it would be a shame if only people of worth were lost.” Casting away the daemon sword like a piece of rotten driftwood, Morgrael took up his combat knife once more. Briskly cutting the eight-pointed star of Chaos into his own forehead, he knelt on Etana Sar’s shoulders and yanked his head up by the horns he’d grown. The Dark Apostle tried to speak, but his rejection by the gods seemed to have robbed him of even that merest power.
“In the name of the Warrior, the Seer, the Gardener, and the Reveller, I offer your death to the Empyrean Choir.”
Morgrael tore his old master’s throat wide open with a single slash, and promptly stepped away to retrieve the Starwheel. The possessed marines tearing apart what remained of Sephigar’s servitors went completely unnoticed; all his attention now rested on the eight-spoked ring that had so greedily devoured his kinsfolk.
Immediately upon closing his fingers around its edge, he knew that all was not lost, for within the alien mechanisms which made the wheel work, hundreds of souls shouted up at him, frightened, confused, outraged, and pleading for restitution. Morgrael wanted more than anything to give them reassurance, to return them to their bodies, but knowing what he knew now, he saw clearly the play Sephigar and Etana Sar had staged with their construction of this cursed device.
Here was the hidden sacrifice necessary to make the wheel turn. When activated by a sorcerous stimulus, the souls trapped in the wheel would be ground into oblivion, allowing its user to twist time as long as the ‘fuel’ inside it kept the wheel spinning. Sacrifices required helpless victims, and following the temple’s completion, the majority of the Host’s constituents had been asleep within its confines, allowing Etana Sar to use the runes in the walls as siphons to steal his kindred’s souls while they were unconscious.
And Morgrael knew not how to restore them.
Is this the true price of hesitation?
A shout alerted Morgrael to the arrival of Hassimir on the roof, accompanied by a mere dozen coteries of Astartes and four times as many serfs. As his equerry came rushing over to ensure that his lord was not too gravely wounded – “Master, you’re covered in blood. Are you alright? Master?” – Morgrael cast his gaze over the paltry gathering, and the further his eyes travelled, the more centuries of his long, long life he felt weighing upon his shoulders. Though he was uninjured, he had never felt so weak, nor had he ever known such pain as that which now flared in his chest.
“Is this everyone?” he asked, hating how hollow his voice sounded. Hassimir looked up, searching for meaning in his master’s eyes, before following his stare and slowly understanding the gravity of what had befallen them.
“We’ll search the temple,” he said, but his moment of incomprehension had spoken volumes. Of a thousand-strong Host, less than a hundred Astartes remained – and that was without accounting for the droves of serfs and prisoners who must have been lost to the Starwheel. As Hassimir began issuing orders to his fellow serfs and the Word Bearers descended back into the darkened halls to search for any straggling warrior-brothers, Morgrael stood alone on the roof, the voices of his kin growing dimmer and duller, as his senses went elsewhere.
They had been right, Morgrael realized now – Etana Sar and Sharrum, who as per the way of the Everchanters had spoken in half-truths; only, the significance of their urging had likely been lost on even them. He ought never to have trusted them, but it was his procrastination that had brought doom upon his kindred. If he had acted earlier – questioned Etana Sar more earnestly, put Sharrum in his place, denounced Sephigar as the fraud he’d always known in his gut that she was – he could perhaps have avoided this.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Is there no certainty to be found among these cursed stars?
Morgrael’s teeth clenched, his eyes shut as he briefly entertained that most blasphemous of thoughts:
Is there no truth after all?
When jolts of pain tore at his upper back, heralding the manifestation of a new dark blessing, he hardly registered it at all. He knew without looking that from his shoulders, there now spanned the same wings of treachery that Etana Sar had grown, at the moment before his downfall. The violation of his kinsfolk’s souls weighed on those shoulders of his, as well they should; but it did not mean Morgrael had forgotten his duty. There, in the centre of the henge, Morgrael swore to the brightening sky that he would see this evil undone.
“We’ve swept the temple, master.” He looked up to see Hassimir standing nearby, his face ashen. Lost in thought, Morgrael had not sensed his approach. “We found two coteries who woke in time. The rest…” He trailed off, his meaning clear, before picking up elsewhere: “There’s no sign of Sephigar. She must’ve slipped away using her servitors to cover her. We scanned the atmosphere, but she’s gone.”
“I see.” The Coryphaus’s face darkened momentarily, before he raised his head and caught the light of the rising sun on his countenance. “Then we begin anew from here.”
Morgrael stepped towards his equerry, the movement so sudden that Hassimir nearly flinched, and again when the Word Bearer’s mailed hand came to rest on his shoulder. “Did you imagine this to be the end of us, kinsman?” he asked, the gentleness of his words belying the steel in his eyes. “We have been dealt a grievous blow, but all is not lost.” With his other hand, he lifted the Starwheel of Sephigar, which pulsed with unused power. “Time is yet un-tampered with, and so it shall remain. Our family is here, withheld from us by this evil thing.”
A flash of hope came over Hassimir’s face, followed swiftly by dismay. “We… we don’t know how to get them out. Sephigar never taught us anything concrete about this machine. We don’t even know if it can be done.”
“We do not,” Morgrael acknowledged, his new wings flaring out behind his back, the blood-red of their feathers brightened by the sun. “And were we not who we are, that would be the end of it. But we are – Word Bearers. Everchanters. Scholars and sorcerers above all others. The Warp lives in this device, and if we cannot unravel its mystery, then this day should have claimed all our souls. We were not taken, Hassimir. Our minds and bodies are our own, and not using them to bring back our kin would be a blasphemous waste.”
His equerry’s face twisted, clearly torn between drive and despair. “It could take years of research and experimentation, master, even centuries, to reverse-engineer. We might damage it in the attempt and lose everything for good.”
“We will never know if we do not try.” Morgrael smiled and moved past Hassimir, his guilt having been transfigured into the sort of determination that had driven nine Legions to ten thousand years of war. An undying, unkillable resolve that now had hold of both his hearts and would not let go until this deed was done. “And time is on our side. Blessed by the gods, our flesh will never fail, and ironclad by kinship, our will shall never falter. Come what may, we shall find a way forward.” He paused at the top of the stairs into the temple, looking back to see the fire of his certitude set his equerry alight. “As always, and forever more – how do we stand, Everchanter?”
Hassimir squared his jaw and lifted his chin, answering his master without hesitation. “All as One.”
“All as One,” Morgrael agreed, and folded his wings as he began a new story in the name of truth.
About the Author
Emil Palmer is an undergraduate student, studying English at the University of Windsor, Ontario. He has been writing fiction ever since accidentally reading Eragon in 2005. You can find more of his work on fanfiction.net, at the link below.